First Female Military Pilots Get Congressional Gold Medal
By Air Force Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 11, 2010 The first female military pilots received the Congressional Gold Medal yesterday at a ceremony in the Capitol. Video
Betty Wall Strohfus, a Women Airforce Service Pilot from Minnesota, sings the national anthem during a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony at the U.S. Capitol, March 10, 2010. More than 200 WASPs attended the event, many of them wearing their World War II-era uniforms. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Almost 70 years ago, the Women Airforce Service Pilots were disbanded with little fanfare. This ceremony was a way to make things right for the trailblazers, Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley said at the ceremony.
“As a result of your conviction and your devotion to duty, from that time onward, women would forever be a part of United States military aviation,” Donley said.
More than 200 WASPs attended the event, many of them wearing their World War II-era uniforms. The audience, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted was one of the largest ever in the Capitol and too large to fit into Emancipation Hall, also included their families, as well as the families of WASPs who have died or couldn’t travel.
Military members from every branch of service served as escorts for the veterans. For Air Force 1st Lt. Sarah Reich, escorting WASP Janet Lee Hutchison to the ceremony was “one of the greatest experiences” of her life.
“The past couple of days with Janet have changed my life,” said Reich, an Air National Guard communications officer. “She told me, ‘I have never known fear; everything is an adventure,’ and I’ll take that lesson with me forever. Her story as a WASP is just amazing.”
The process to approve the Congressional Gold Medal was introduced and approved in record time last year. The bipartisan effort was led by Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, as well as Reps. Susan Davis of California and Ilena Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. All four elected officials spoke at the event.
Deanie Parrish, associate director of Wings Across America, accepted the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the WASPs. Along with Pelosi, House Minority Leader John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell presented the medal.
Air Force Lt. Col. Nicole Malachowski, the first female pilot in the Air Force's air demonstration squadron, was instrumental in shaping the bill to honor and recognize the WASPs. She also spoke at the ceremony.
“Today is the day when the WASPs will make history once again,” Malachowski said. “If you spend any time at all talking to these wonderful women, you’ll notice how humble and gracious and selfless they all are. Their motives for wanting to fly airplanes all those years ago wasn’t for fame or glory or recognition. They simply had a passion to take what gifts they had and use them to help defend not only America, but the entire free world, from tyranny.
“And they let no one get in their way,” she added.
Of the more than 1,100 women who volunteered and flew every fighter, bomber, transport and trainer aircraft in the inventory 68 years ago, only about 300 are still alive.
Betty Wall Strohfus, a WASP from Minnesota, was one of the women who “just had to be here for this.” She flew the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-26 Marauder bombers, as well as the P-39 Airacobra fighter.
“It’s almost unbelievable. We never thought this day would come,” she said. “We were all just so grateful to have the opportunity to fly. But this was just such a lovely ceremony and so nice for all these people to come out for us.”
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest award Congress can present to a civilian or group of civilians. Past honorees include the Navajo Code Talkers in 2000 and Tuskegee Airmen in 2006.
Each WASP received a smaller version of the medal to keep. The original medal will be donated to the Smithsonian Institution for display later this year with the “Women in Aviation” display at its Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.
(Air Force Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski serves in the Secretary of the Air Force public affairs office.)